The Sun Wukong Cult in Fujian

Last update: 08-17-19

Worshipers of the Wanfu Temple of Tainan, Taiwan believe their high god and oldest altar statue, the “Laying the Foundation Elder Great Sage” (Kaiji Da Dasheng, 開基大大聖) (fig. 1), was transported to the island from the southern Chinese province of Fujian by a certain Lady Ruan (Ruan Furen, 阮夫人) during the Southern Ming/early Qing Dynasty (c. 1660). Fujian is home to a large number of temples dedicated to Sun Wukong. Monkey’s cult on the mainland may have some bearing on the history of his worship on the island. This is especially true since Taiwan was made a prefecture of Fujian in 1684 by the Qing. It was later granted provincehood in 1887 (Gordon, 2007). The cult was no doubt part of the cultural exchange that took place between these two areas during this time. In this paper I use modern demographics and historical records and stories to explore the history of Sun Wukong’s worship in Fujian. I suggest the existence of a historical 12th-century monkey cult explains why the Great Sage’s cult was so readily adopted in the province.

Important Great Sages 1 - small

Fig. 1 – The Wanfu Temple’s Laying the Foundation Great Great Sage altar statue, indicated by the letter A (larger version). B and C are lesser Great Sages within the temple’s pantheon.

I. Modern demographics and possible tie to historical trends

The plains of Putian (莆田) on the central Fujian coast hosts a cluster of Great Sage temples. Dean and Zheng (2009) show the Great Sage is the sixth of the forty most popular deities, his statue appearing in 332 temples, even beating out Guanyin (322 statues) in seventh place (p. 177). Additionally, they describe an interesting geographical correlation in their distribution:

Using GIS mapping, one can unearth many suggestive correlations in distributions of different cultural features across the plain. For example, certain gods such as Qitian dasheng 齊天大聖 (Sun Wukong 孫悟空) and Puji shenghou 普濟聖侯 (Zhu Bajie 豬八戒), the Monkey and the Pig of the classic Xiyouji 西游記 (Journey to the West), appear more often in poorer villages in the northern plain [fig. 2], often in higher elevations than in the low-lying, densely irrigated, wealthier villages of the southern plains. This suggests that the unruly natures of these gods appealed to poorer communities rather than to villages with established scholar-literati lineages (Dean & Zheng, 2009, pp. 38-39)

Fujian Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie Temple overlay Map - small

Fig. 2 – Left: Distribution of Sun Wukong temples (red) in the Putian plains of Fujian Province, China (larger version); Right: An overlay of Zhu Bajie Temples (light blue) with those of Monkey (red) (larger version). There is quite a bit of overlap. Adapted from Dean & Zheng, 2009, pp. 192-193.

Sun Wukong is one of several gods who never enjoyed state patronage in dynastic China due to their eccentric or rebellious nature (Shahar, 1996, p. 185). Regarding the latter, emperors had to deal with real world challenges to their own primacy, so paying homage to, say, a dissident monkey spirit probably didn’t seem too appealing. It’s interesting to note that Monkey is worshiped in Fujian and Taiwan under his defiant title of the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, a name he chose during his rebellion with the celestial realm, instead of his Buddhist name Wukong (悟空, “Awakened to Emptiness”) (Shahar, 1996, p. 201). Therefore, Monkey may have historically appealed to poorer folks because he had the power to push back against an unfair government, perhaps one that favored rich literati over impoverished farmers. This could explain the demographics mentioned above. If true, such people could be responsible for bringing Sun’s cult to Taiwan.

II. The connection between religion, myth, and popular literature

Emperors who officially recognized gods helped make them more popular or at least better known. [1] But, as Shahar (1996) explains, the state’s involvement rarely went beyond building temples and making offerings. Oral tales and popular novels were largely responsible for spreading the myth of a particular deity (p. 185). He continues:

In some cases the novel’s transformation of its divine protagonist was so profound, and its impact on the shape of its cult so great, that the novelist could be considered the deity’s creator. A notable example is Sun Wukong. The cult of this divine monkey in late imperial times cannot be separated from his image as shaped by the successive Journey to the West novels. In this respect he is indeed their author’s creation, and Pu Songling‘s complaint, voiced through his protagonist Xu Sheng [許盛], is justified: “Sun Wukong is nothing but a parable invented by [the novelist] Old Qiu [老丘]. [2] How can people sincerely believe in him?” (Shahar, 1996, pp. 193-194).

The tale referred to by Shahar, titled the Great Sage Equaling Heaven (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖) appears in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (Liaozhai zhiyi, 聊齋誌異), a collection of popular tales recorded as early as 1679 by Pu Songling and later posthumously published in 1740 (Barr, 1984). The story follows the aforementioned Xu Sheng and his older brother, both merchants from Shandong, who travel to Fujian to sell their wares but are told to pray to the Great Sage when they fail to make any money.  They visit the monkey god temple and witness people burning incense and kowtowing to an image of Sun Wukong. The older brother takes part in the rituals, but Sheng simply laughs and leaves, resulting in a subsequent argument between the two during which Sheng ridicules adherents for worshiping a fictional character from a novel. Sheng later falls bedridden with agonizing leg sores that prevent him from walking, yet he refuses to accept the Great sage is punishing him. His brother begs him to repent, but he still refuses. The brother shortly thereafter falls ill and dies, prompting Sheng to go to the temple to beg for his brother’s life. That night, he dreams he is brought before Sun Wukong, who rebukes Sheng for his rude behavior and reveals the leg sores (the result of being stabbed by Monkey’s heavenly sword) [3] and his brother’s subsequent death to be heaven-sent punishments. The deity finally agrees to revive the brother and sends an order to King Yama in hell to release his soul. Sheng shows his thanks by kneeling. He then awakes to find his brother has revived but remains too weak to work. Days later, Sheng meets an old man who claims he can use “a little magic” to transport them to a beautiful place that will sap away the merchant’s depression wrought by the past events. The two travel by cloud to a celestial paradise where Sheng and the old man drink tea with an aged deity. The god rewards Sheng with twelve magic stones for taking the time to visit him. Upon returning to earth, the merchant realizes the old man is the Great Sage, for both use the “Somersault Cloud” (Jindou yun, 筋斗雲) as a means of conveyance. In the end, the magic stones are found to have melted, but this corresponds to a drastic increase in the brothers’ selling profits. The two return home but are sure to pay their respects to the Great Sage anytime they visit Fujian for business (Pu & Sondergard, 2014, pp. 2078-2085).

I’d like to point out the story includes an afterward that critiques the idea of Sun Wukong being a real god:

The collector of these strange tales remarks, “Once upon a time, a scholar who was passing a temple went in and painted a pipa on one wall, then left; when he checked on it later, its spiritual power was considered so outstanding that people had joined together there to burn incense to it. A god certainly doesn’t have to exist in order to be considered powerful in this world; if people believe it to be divine, it will be so for them. What’s the reason for this? When people who share the same beliefs gather together, they’ll choose some creature figure to represent those beliefs. It’s right that an outspoken man like Sheng should be blessed by the god; who else could believe for real that he’s protected by someone who keeps an embroidery needle inside his ear, who he can transform one of his hairs into a writing brush, or who ascends via cloud-somersault into the cerulean sky! In the end, Sheng’s mind must have deluded him, for what he saw simply couldn’t be true” (Pu & Sondergard, 2014, p. 2085)

This shows that, while the common folk believed in Monkey, the literati class scoffed at such an idea. This again may explain why, as mentioned above, more well-educated communities in modern Fujian do not widely worship Monkey.

III. Historical monkey cults in Fujian

Apart from Pu Songling’s story, there are two other 17th-century references to the worship of a monkey god in Fujian. Dudbridge (1970) explains:

According to You Dong [尤侗] (1618-1704) the citizens of Fuzhou worshiped Sun Xingzhe [孫行者, Pilgrim Sun] as a household god and built temples to the monkey-god Qitian Dasheng. Tong Shisi [佟世思] (1651-92) describes the monkey-headed god of Fujian as bearing a metal circlet about his forehead, brandishing an iron cudgel, wearing a tiger-skin and known as Sun Dasheng [孫大聖, Great Sage Sun]. Traditionally he had appeared in the clouds to beat back an attack from Japanese pirates (p. 158). [4]

I find the last reference particularly interesting because it refers to the preceding 16th-century when China’s coast was plagued by Japanese pirates. It depicts the Great Sage as a benevolent god who intervenes to protect his chosen people, the Chinese.

In her excellent paper on the origins of Sun Wukong, Hera S. Walker (1998) discusses a 1237 stone relief from the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺) in Quanzhou, a port city in Fujian, that portrays a sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior (pp. 69-70). [5] Considered by many to be an early depiction of Monkey, the figure wears a fillet, a tunic, a Buddhist rosary, and a pair of bangles (Fig. 3). Walker quotes Victor Mair, who believes the fillet and the figure wearing it recall South and Southeast asian depictions of the Buddhist guardian Andira and the Hindu monkey god Hanuman (Walker, 1998, p. 70). I have suggested in a previous article that the accouterments worn by the warrior are instead based on Esoteric Buddhist ritual attire known in China. So instead of being based on a foreign source, it can be considered a depiction of a local spirit or deity. The relief therefore suggests the proposed Fujian monkey god cult predates the 17th-century.

Better Kaiyung Temple Monkey (Zayton-Quanzhou) - small

Fig. 3 – The 1237 stone relief of Sun Wukong from the Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou, Fujian (larger version).

The oldest known evidence for a cult based around a monkey is described in Hong Mai’s (洪邁, 1123-1202) the Record of the Listener (Yijian zhi, 夷堅志, c. 1160), a collection of supernatural tales from the Song Dynasty. The following story is said to take place in the Yongfu County of Fujian. Again, we turn to Dudbridge (2005):

The image [effigy], dubbed Monkey King 猴王, was shaped around a captured living monkey and worshipped as a ‘spirit protecting hills and woods’ (保山林神). [6] It afflicted the surrounding population with fevers and frenzy. Blood sacrifice won no relief. Shamans and monks assaulted the spirit by night with noisy ritual music, but to no effect. Only the Buddhist elder Zongyan 宗演 successfully admonished the resentful monkey spirit and wrought its deliverance by reciting in Sanskrit the dhāraṇī of the All-Compassionate (大悲咒). The grateful monkey appeared to him the same night, explaining that she was now able to rise to heaven. Later the image and its thirty-two attendants (all made from birds) were smashed, and the hauntings came to an end (p. 264; see also Dudbridge, 1970, p. 159).

Dudbridge (1970) is reluctant, however, to accept this as a precursor to Sun Wukong’s cult, especially since both this 12th-century monkey spirit and the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Hou Xingzhe, 猴行者) from the The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, a 13th-century precursor to Journey to the West, bear little resemblance to the simian god mentioned in 17th-century records. He instead suggests the Great Sage’s cult could have grown up around stories connected to the publishing of the novel (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 159). While Journey to the West certainly played a sizable role in the spread of Monkey’s cult, I think the above tale shows that the Fujian area was already primed for monkey worship by at least the 12th-century. Most importantly, the noted Song dynasty poet Liu Kezhuang (劉克莊, 1187-1269), whose family hailed from the Fujian city of Putian (mentioned in section one) (Ebrey, 2005, p. 95), referenced the Monkey pilgrim twice in his 13th-century work. The second of two such references uses Monkey as a metaphor to describe the ageing 70-year-old poet’s appearance. A portion of the poem reads:

A back bent like a water-buffalo in the Zi stream [泗河],
Hair as white as the silk thread issued by the “ice silkworms”,
A face even uglier than Hou Xingzhe,
Verse more scanty than even He Heshi [鶴何師] (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 46)

This shows the character’s story cycle was so well-known in Fujian at this time that no other specifics from the oral tradition had to be mentioned. Therefore, stories of the early monkey cult and those of Sun Wukong could have existed in Fujian around the same time. It’s not entirely impossible then that the historical monkey worship in the province gave the cult of the Great Sage, whenever it first appeared, a boost. This might explain why a so-called literary character would come to be so readily worshiped in the province.

IV. Conclusion

Taiwan has close ties to the southern Chinese province of Fujian because the former was made a prefecture of the latter during the 17th-century. The province is home to a large number of temples dedicated to the Monkey King, so this is no doubt connected to the spread of his cult to the island nation. Modern GIS mapping in Fujian suggests Sun Wukong’s temples mainly inhabit the northern highlands of the Putian plains where poorer villages reside. Monkey’s cult never received royal patronage in dynastic China due to his rebellious nature. The fact that he is worshiped in Fujian and Taiwan by his rebellious title of the Great Sage Equaling Heaven suggests Monkey may have historically appealed to the poorer class because he had the power to push back against an unfair government, perhaps one that favored the rich over the destitute. If true, these could be the people responsible for bringing Sun’s cult to Taiwan.

The mythos of Monkey’s cult was spread thanks to oral tales and popular literature. His mythos became so inseparable from the novel that the scholar class looked upon him as a literary character that jumped from the pages of fiction to be worshiped as a god. An example of this viewpoint appears in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (written c. 17th-cent.) in which a skeptical merchant only becomes an adherent of the Great Sage after he and his brother are punished with painful sores and death, respectively. The author of the tale comments the merchant was probably delusional to fall for such a belief. This scholarly disdain for such literary gods may then explain why the more well-educated villages in Putian don’t widely worship Sun Wukong today.

Other 17th-century sources referring to Monkey’s Fujian cult portray him as a headband-wearing, cudgel-wielding benevolent god who comes to the aid of the Chinese people. A 13th-century stone relief located on the western pagoda of the Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou depicts a sword-wielding, monkey-headed warrior wearing a fillet. While past scholarship has posited a South and Southeast Asian origin for the figure’s iconography, my research suggests it to be based on esoteric ritual accouterments known in China. So instead of being based on a foreign source, it can be considered a depiction of a local spirit or deity. The relief therefore suggests the proposed Fujian monkey god cult predates the 17th-century. The oldest evidence for such a cult appears in Hong Mai’s Record of the Listener, a 12th-century collection of supernatural tales. It refers to a malevolent simian god worshiped as the “Spirit protecting hills and woods” that spread fever and was eventually pacified by a Buddhist monk. This shows Fujian was primed for monkey worship by the 12th-century, and the fact that the “Monkey Pilgrim” (Sun Wukong’s original name) is mentioned in the secular works of the Putian poet Liu Kezhuang in the 13th-century shows stories of this god and Monkey existed in Fujian around the same time. The historical existence of a Fujian monkey cult may have given Sun Wukong’s cult a boost, explaining how a literary character came to be so readily worshiped.

Updated: 07-26-19

The American missionary Justus Doolittle (1865) recorded information about the worship of the Great Sage in Fuzhou city, Fujian province, China during the 19th-century:

The Monkey. — It is represented as a man sitting, the face only being like a monkey. The image is usually made of wood or clay. Sometimes a picture of it is made on paper, or simply the title under which the monkey is worshiped is written on a slip of paper, and used instead of an image. There are several large temples at this place, erected for the worship of “His Excellency the Holy King,” one of the titles much used in speaking of the monkey as an object of worship. Oftentimes the niche holding the image or the written name is placed in a hollow tree, or in the wall at the corners of streets, or at the heads of alleys or lanes. Such places, in this city and vicinity, where the monkey is worshiped, reckoned together with the small temples or buildings dedicated to it, amount to several scores. The worship consists principally in the burning of incense and candles, sometimes attended with the presentation of meats, vegetables, and fruits. The monkey was first worshiped in return for some supposed services rendered the individual who went to India, by special command of an emperor of the Tang dynasty, to obtain the Sacred Books of the Buddhist religion — so some affirm. This emperor deified the monkey, or, at least, he conferred the august title of “the great Sage equal to Heaven” upon that quadruped. The birthday of “His Excellency the Holy King” is believed to occur on the twenty-third of the second Chinese month, when his monkey majesty is specially worshiped by men from all classes of society. The monkey is believed to have the general control of hobgoblins, witches, elves, etc. It is also supposed to be able to bestow health, protection, and success on mankind, if not directly, indirectly, by keeping away malicious spirits or goblins. People often imagine that sickness, or want of success in study and trade, is caused by witches and hobgoblins. Hence the sick or the unsuccessful worship the monkey, in order to obtain its kind offices in driving away or preventing the evil influences of various imaginary spirits or powers (vol. 1, pp. 287-288).

He continues, “Sometimes the image carried in procession while praying for rain represents a deified monkey, an object which is much worshiped by some classes of the people at this place” (Doolittle, 1865, vol. 2, p. 119).

It appears that Doolittle wasn’t aware of Journey to the West since he combines folklore with history, claiming a Tang emperor deified and/or bestowed Wukong with his Great Sage title. Sun’s image as an exorcist and healer, as well as his remuneration with incense and delicious foodstuffs, matches what I’ve previously written about in Taiwan. But his association with rainmaking is new, although not entirely a surprise. Also, his birthday is celebrated on a different day, the twenty-third day of the second lunar month, instead of the twelfth day of the tenth lunar month in Taiwan and the sixteenth day of the eighth lunar month in Hong Kong and Singapore. Interestingly, unlike Fuzhou, his birthday is celebrated on the twenty-fifth day of the second lunar month in Putian (Dean & Zheng, 2010, p. 162, for example). Such differences highlight that Monkey’s cult never received state patronage and therefore lacks standardization in beliefs and practices even in Fujian.

This information may have implications for the worship of the Great Sage by southern Chinese immigrants in 19th-century San Francisco.

Updated: 08-17-2019

The Japanese researcher Isobe Akira shows that, despite appearing in Song-era sources, the aforementioned story about the female monkey king can be traced to the late Tang period (Mair, 1989, pp. 694-695). This shows Fujian was primed for monkey worship centuries prior to the development of Sun Wukong’s story cycle.

Additionally, Isobe points to one of the earliest known references to Sun Wukong. A tale appearing in Zhang Shinan’s (張世南, 12th-13th century) Memoirs of a Traveling Official  (Youhuan jiwen遊宦紀聞) tells of Zhang the Sage (Zhang sheng, 張聖), a farmer-turned-Buddhist monk who gains literacy and clairvoyance after eating a magic peach. In the story, Zhang is asked to write a eulogy in honor of a newly built revolving sutra case. The resulting poem references the Monkey Pilgrim:

Fresh are the pattra (palm) leaves on which are written
the unexcelled (anuttara), vigorous texts,
In several lives, Tripitaka went west to India to retrieve them;
Their every line, their every letter is a precious treasure,
Each sentence and each word is a field of blessing (punyaksetra).
In the waves of the sea of misery (duhkha-sagara),
the Monkey-disciple presses on 猴行復,
Through the waters of the river that soak its hair,
the horse rushes forward;
No sooner have they passed the long sand than they must face
the trial of the golden sands,
Only while gazing toward the other shore do they know
the reasons (pratyaya) for being on this shore.
The demons (yaksas) are delighted that they might
get their heart’s desire,
But the Bodhisattva, with hand clasped in respectful greeting,
sends them on;
Now here are the five hundred and sixty-odd cases of scriptures,
Their merit is difficult to measure, their perfection
hard to encompass (Mair, 1989, pp. 693-694).

This eulogy is fascinating because it references additional elements that would appear in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, including the Buddhist master’s quest to India over many lifetimes, the tribulations at the river of sand (a nod to Sha Wujing’s precursor), the demons encountered, and heavenly assistance. Isobe dates Zhang the Sage’s tale to the late Northern Song to the early Southern Song (circa 1127) (Mair, 1989, p. 694). But what’s interesting for our purposes is that the original recorder, Zhang Shinan was known to have historically held a government post in Fujian (Zheng, Kirk, Buell, & Unschuld, 2018, pp. 644-645), meaning he could have picked up the tale in the southern province. This adds an additional connection between Fujian and Sun Wukong.


1) One example of this connected to Journey to the West is Erlang. He was originally worshiped as a hunting god and queller of mountain ghosts by the Qiang (羌) ethnic group of the western Sichuan region. But his cult became even more popular upon gaining state recognition. Wu (1987) writes: “The Er-lang cult became even more popular in Sichuan under the patronage of the Later Shu emperor, Meng Chang 孟昶 (r. 934-65), and in 965, when the Song dynasty conquered the kingdom, it adopted the cult, erecting temples for the god in the capital and throughout the country” (pp. 107-108).

2) This refers to Qiu Chuji (丘處機, 1148-1227), the founder of the Dragon Gate sect of Daoism during the Song Dynasty. Qiu is known to have written a travel journal named Journey to the West, which Pu Songling confused with the novel of the same name (Pu & Sondergard, 2014, p. 2080 n. 1).

3) Literally “Bodhisattva Saber” (Pusa dao, 菩薩刀).

4) Source altered slightly. The Wade Giles was converted to pinyin and the Chinese characters from the footnotes were moved into the paragraph.

5) In act 10 of the early 15th-century zaju play Journey to the West, Guanyin gives Sun Wukong an iron headband, a cassock, and, most importantly, a sword. His depiction in the play and this relief then may have some connection.

6) The fact that the effigy was formed around a living monkey suggests it was killed in the process. This would explain its rage.


Barr, A. (1984). The Textural Transmission of Liaozhai zhiyi. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 44 (2), pp. 515-562.

Dean, K., & Zheng, Z. (2009). Ritual alliances of the Putian plain. Volume One: Historical introduction to the return of the gods. Leiden: Brill.

Dean, K., & Zheng, Z. (2010). Ritual alliances of the Putian plain. Volume Two: A survey of village temples and ritual activities. Leiden: Brill.

Doolittle, J. (1865). Social life of the Chinese: With some account of their religious, governmental, educational, and business customs and opinions. With special but not exclusive reference to Fuhchau. Volume 1 and 2. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Dudbridge, G. (2005). Books, tales and vernacular culture: Selected papers on China. Leiden: Brill.

Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Ebrey, P. B. (2005). Women and the family in Chinese history. London: Routledge.

Gordon, L. H. D. (2007). Confrontation over Taiwan: Nineteenth-century China and the powers. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Mair, V. (1989). Suen Wu-kung = Hanumat? The Progress of a Scholarly Debate, in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Sinology (pp. 659-752). Taipei: Academia Sinica.

Pu, S., & Sondergard, S. L. (2014). Strange tales from Liaozhai. Volume 6. Fremont, Calif: Jain Pub.

Shahar, M. (1996). Vernacular Fiction and the Transmission of Gods’ Cults in Later Imperial China in Shahar, M., & Weller, R. P. (1996). Unruly gods: Divinity and society in China (pp. 184-211). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Walker, H.S. (1998). Indigenous or foreign? A look at the origins of monkey hero Sun Wukong. Sino-Platonic Papers, 81, pp. 1-117.

Zheng, J., Kirk, N., Buell, P. D., & Unschuld, P. U. (2018). Dictionary of the Ben cao gang mu, Vol. 3: Authors and book titles. Berkeley: University of California Press.

The Worship of Sun Wukong in Wanfu Temple: Initial Findings

Last updated: 07/21/2020

As a historian of the great Chinese classic Journey to the West (1592), much of my time researching is spent flipping through piles of books or searching the internet. Rarely do I get the opportunity to conduct field research on living traditions connected with the novel. That’s why I was excited to learn of the Buddho-Daoist Wanfu temple (Wanfu an, 萬福庵) (fig. 1 and 2) in Tainan, Taiwan where they worship Sun Wukong under his guise as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven (Qitian Dasheng, 齊天大聖). This happened to coincide with a short break from school, allowing me time to travel. I left Taipei where I live and stayed in the West Central District of the southern municipality. My afternoon was spent independently touring both floors of the recently renovated temple and taking numerous photos, all of which can be seen on my google drive. I had originally planned to catch the train home that evening, but was so intrigued by what I saw that I delayed my return another day. After making introductions, my second afternoon was spent asking questions about pantheon structure, rituals, general beliefs, etc. I was invited back that evening to record their spirit-medium channeling the Great Sage.

Below I present my initial findings. I realize a day is obviously not enough time for observation, so the following information should be looked upon as an informal survey. However, I still feel this material is important, not only because few scholars writing in English have published on the worship of Sun Wukong, but also because it helps flesh out the ongoing history of his veneration going back to at least the 17th-century. [1]

Exterior and entrance

Fig. 1 – Wanfu temple exterior (larger version). Fig. 2 – The entrance (larger version).

1. Temple History

Wanfu is touted as the oldest temple dedicated to the Great Sage in all of Taiwan. It was originally a mansion built during the early 1660s for Ruan Jun (阮駿), a subordinate of the famous Southern Ming Dynasty General Koxinga. His widow Lady Ruan (阮夫人) is said to have lived out the rest of her days there in religious piety, and following her death, the mansion was converted into a house of worship called the Lady Ruan Temple (Ruan Furen si, 阮夫人寺). The name was subsequently changed to “Myriad Blessings” (Wanfu, 萬福) in the 11th year of the Jiaqing reign (1806) during a time when the temple was known for taking in orphans. The change was made by nuns who believed the children benefited from the blessings of an old stone Great Sage statue thought to have been brought over from Fujian by Lady Ruan when she and thousands of other people fled the invading Qing forces to Taiwan. Sun Wukong’s influence over the temple grew to the point that, while still officially known as Wanfu, (fig. 3) it came to acquire the additional name of Taiwan’s Laying the [Religious] Foundation Great Sage Equaling Heaven Temple (Quantai Kaiji Qitian Dasheng miao, 全臺開基齊天大聖廟) (fig. 4). A second level was added to the building in 1971, and further renovations were completed in 2014.


Fig. 3 – The “Wanfu Temple” sign over the main templer doors (larver version). Fig. 4 – The neon sign on the facade reads “Wanfu temple Laying the Foundation Great Sage Equaling Heaven” (larger version).

2. Pantheon of Great Sages

One of the most interesting aspects of the temple is that it recognizes more than one Great Sage, each with his own function. Their pantheon consists of a trinity, followed by a small handful in administrative positions, and finally a plethora of soldier Monkeys. The highest-ranking is the aforementioned 300-plus-year-old stone statue named Laying the Foundations Elder Great Sage (Kaiji Da Dasheng, 開基大大聖) (fig. 5A and 8). His central importance is signified by his position atop a chair on the altar stage. He is alternatively known as the Great Sage Lord (Dasheng Ye, 大聖爺). The second and third ranking members of this trinity, respectively named Laying the Foundations Second Great Sage (Kaiji Er Dasheng, 開基二大聖) and Laying the Foundations Third Great Sage (Kaiji San Dasheng, 開基三大聖) (fig. 5B, 5C, and 8), sit to his right and left. The Elder Great Sage and the Second Great Sage remain in heaven unless some important matter requires their direct participation. The Third Great sage alternates with the administrative Tour Inspector Great Sage (see below) to see to external temple business on Saturdays.

Trio and most of admins

Fig. 5A – The Laying the Foundation Elder Great Sage, the 300-year-old stone statue; 5B – The Laying the Foundation Second Great Sage; and 5C – The Laying the Foundation Third Great Sage (larger version). Fig. 6 – The Tour Inspector Great Sage (larger version). Fig. 7 – The Internal Affairs Great Sage (larger version). 

The administrative Monkeys include the large Tour Inspector Great Sage (Chuxun Dasheng, 出巡大聖) (fig. 6 and 8), who oversees activities outside the temple. He is located to the right of the trinity; the slightly larger, staff-wielding Internal Affairs Great Sage (Neiwu Zongguan Dasheng, 内務總管大聖) (fig. 7 and 8) serves as a manager to lower-ranking Monkeys. He is located to the left of the trinity; and the Sergeant Great Sage (Shiguan Dasheng, 士官大聖) (fig. 9) serves as the temple director. This comparatively small statue sits behind a magistrate’s bench below the altar stage, just behind the offerings table.

altar statues and sergeant great sage

Fig. 8 – The altar stage layout, with the most important Great Sages labeled (larger version). Fig. 9 – The Sergeant Great Sage sitting at a magistrate’s bench (larger version). 

In addition, the Elder Great Sage has at his disposal a group of powerful commanders known as the Five Camps Celestial Generals (Wuying Bingjiang, 五營兵將), who protect the five cardinal directions. These are the black Northern Camp Sage Lian Gong (Beiying Lian Gong Shengzhe, 北營連公聖者); the blue/green Eastern Camp Sage Zhang Gong (Dongying Zhang Gong Shengzhe, 東營張公聖者); the red Southern Camp Sage Xiao Gong (Nanying Xiao Gong Shengzhe, 南營蕭公聖); the white Western Camp Sage Liu Gong (Xiying Liu Gong Shengzhe, 西營劉公聖者); and the golden Central Camp Marshal of the Central Altar (Zhongying Zhong Tan Yuanshuai, 中營中壇元帥) (fig. 10). Each general in turn leads a vast heavenly army comprised of tens of thousands of soldiers. Such generals are very common to Daoist temples across Taiwan and find their origin in the 36 protector generals of Daoism (Sanshiliu Tianjiang, 三十六天將), who funny enough are led by Zhu Bajie’s previous incarnation Marshal Tianpeng (Davis, 2001, p. 78).

The position of the Great Sage pantheon in relation to the wider Buddho-Daoist pantheon mirrors that from Journey to the West. Despite his central position in Wanfu’s religious life, the Great Sage is still considered subordinate to the Bodhisattva Guanyin (觀音), whose birthday was being celebrated on the second day of my visit with a vegetarian meal open to all. In fact, the temple’s second floor Three Jewels Hall (Sanbao Dian, 三寶殿) contains statues of the Buddha and flanking Bodhisattvas raised on an altar stage, with a statue of Guanyin placed in front of and almost at the same level as the Enlightened One (fig. 11). This shows her great importance.

Soldiers and Guanyin

Fig. 10 – Two sets of the Five Camps Celestial Generals can be seen. Their colors of black, blue/green, red, white, and gold help distinguish each one (larger version). Fig. 11 – The statue of Guanyin sitting in front of and almost at the same level of the Buddha (larger version). The goddess Mazu sits in front of Guanyin. From the second floor Three Jewels Hall.

3. Worshiping the Great Sage and requesting blessings

When the faithful come to pray, they often stand directly in line with the center of the altar, (fig. 12) with hands pressed and set against their forehead (or chest), or they light a grouping of three incense sticks, kneel on the praying couch, and hold the sticks up to their forehead (or chest) with elbows level, often rhythmically bobbing their arms or upper torso (fig. 13). The procedure for making a request has three steps. First, adherents greet the Great Sage and say their full name, lunar birthday (and time if known), and their address. This is done because many people have names spelled with the exact same Chinese characters. The step insures the Great Sage answers the right prayers for the right person. Second, they wish for health, wealth, good luck, removal of a negative influence, etc. Third, they later burn spirit money to repay Monkey’s generosity. This form of prayer is for those who don’t mind waiting for a response.

For those seeking an immediate response, the temple employs a pair of crescent moon-shaped wooden blocks known as “bamboo cups” (jiaobei, 筊杯) (fig. 8) for divination purposes. The procedure starts the same with the greeting and personal information, but the cups are grasped between the hands during the prayer and then dropped to the ground after a 10 minute waiting period. Like rolling spiritual dice, the faithful take note of the orientation in which the blocks fall. One side of the blocks is flat, while the other is curved. If one cup falls with the flat side upwards (open) and the other flat side down (closed), this means “yes” (shengjiao, 聖筊). If both fall upwards, this means the Great Sage is happy or “laughing” at the request (xiaojiao, 笑筊). If both fall facedown, the Great Sage is “angry” and unwilling to fulfill the request (nujiao, 怒筊) (fig. 14). The cups are thrown three times and the best two of three results are accepted as the answer.

Worship pics

Fig. 12 – The offering table and altar (larger version). Fig. 13 – A young couple praying to the Great Sage (larger version). Fig. 14 – The Bamboo cups, both sitting in the “angry” response (cup down) (larger version).

Often times adherents will want more clarification, so the blocks are used in tandem with “fortune sticks” (qiuqian, 求籤). The traditional procedure is to shake the cylinder full of sticks, each marked with a number, until one falls out. (I, however, saw one young man with long, dyed hair randomly reach into the cylinder without shaking it. He also didn’t wait the required period after his prayer to drop the cups. He must have been in a hurry!) The adherent then looks up the corresponding oracle in a booklet kept on the temple’s front desk. These oracles are also available on slips of paper that can be taken and read later. The use of the bamboo cups and fortune sticks is common in other temples.

I asked one young couple associated with the temple about the exact number of members. They were unsure of the core members and especially of the number of outside worshipers. It appears the veneration of the Great Sage is so entrenched in Tainan religious society that people from other temples will come from time to time to pay their respects to Monkey.

3.1. Great Sage Spirit-Medium

The second day of my visit coincided with one of the twice weekly (Wed. and Sat.) rituals in which the temple’s spirit-medium (Hokkien: tangki, 童乩; Chinese: jitong, 乩童, lit: “divining youth”) calls down the spirit of the Great Sage to possess his body (video 1). Prior to the ritual, red ropes were used to demarcate a sacred space within the center of the altar hall. The ropes were tied to either side of the main central temple doors and stretched diagonally to the respective left and right walls of the hall, forming a V-shape, or a sort of spiritual bottleneck. Only the medium and the temple workers were allowed to inhibit this sacred space shortly before and during the ritual. The faithful seeking blessings and spectators were asked to wait on the other side of the ropes, entering through secondary doors located to the respective left and right of the main set.

Video 1 – The spirit-medium ritual.

I witnessed the medium chewing an herbal substance that was removed prior to the ritual. [2] He then proceeded to purify himself with a small pot of (psychoactive?) incense, first bathing his hands and arms in the smoke, before passing it around his head, waist, and calves. Taking hold of the pot’s handles, he began belching. This gave way to a moving trance in which he marched in place for several minutes. The arrival of the Great Sage was signaled by an audible growl and the medium lifting high one knee, taking on a martial pose like esoteric protector deities (fig. 15). After an attendant removed his shirt, he squatted low to the ground and struck another pose with arms flexed like said deities (fig. 16). Such postures serve to mark the medium’s transition from a human to a god.

The medium-turned-Great Sage displayed jovial feet clapping, followed by feats of strength, including elevated push ups and a handstand. Finally, he stood atop a wooden bench and used his weight to rock it side to side, slamming the feet down in rapid succession, producing a sound similar to firecrackers. The sound is used to scare away evil influences. I was told in advance that the medium would “do exercise” and use the bench “to make noise”, so these appear to be common aspects of the ritual.


Fig. 15 – The stance announcing the Great Sage’s arrival (left) is similar to esoteric guardian deities, such as the temple’s depiction of Wangling Tianjun (center left) (larger version). Fig. 16 – His next stance (center right) is also similar to said guardians, especially this statue based on a famous 14th-century carving of a Japanese Nio (right) (larger version).

The Great Sage welcomed the first of many children and blessed each the same with the following procedure. First, he touched the top of the incense pot and then transferred his hand to the child’s crown, doing this three times. Second, he dipped his finger into the incense and drew a line down the center of the child’s face from the forehead to the chin and onto the neck. Third, after dipping his fingers in the incense again, he traced a rectangular form on the child’s torso, possibly a symbolic fu (符) talisman, before pushing on the stomach several times to release, as I was told, “bad air” (negative qi). The same rectangle was traced on the child’s back. Fourth, the Great Sage dipped his finger in the incense and turned to the table to write out three fu talismans on yellow strips of paper, his finger often floating above the surface. One was packaged to be later burnt and the ashes combined with an included tea leaf and cold (yin) and hot (yang) water to be given to the child as a magical brew. The second was folded and put inside of a red pouch to be worn as a good luck charm (fig. 17-19). The third was lit and waved over the child’s head and around their body.

Package and charm

Fig. 17 – A baggy containing a loose fu talisman, a folded talisman inside of a red charm, and a tea leaf (larger version). This baggy was given to me when I participated in similar ritual for adults. Fig. 18 – The front of the charm reading “Tainan Wanfu Temple, safety and peace” (larger version). Fig. 19 – The back reading “Great Sage Equaling Heaven”, “Guanyin/Shakyamuni”, and “Multitude of Gods and Buddhas” (larger version). 

The large number of children taking part in the ritual (many of which were not shown in the video) is, as mentioned above, tied to the temple’s history. Adherents believe the Great Sage bestows blessings on children, as well as cures them of illnesses when they are sick. [3] Additionally, they believe those taken as the Great Sage’s godchildren will be well-behaved and become well-tempered adults. [4] For those who have read the novel, this may at first appear to be a paradox—Monkey, a paragon of good behavior?!—but this no doubt refers to his internalization of self-restraint after becoming a Buddha at the end of the novel. This coincides with the disappearance of his restraint-inducing golden headband.

Numerous adults also sought the Great Sage’s blessing. Having already provided their personal information on salmon-colored prayer sheets to Temple personnel, each person in turn greeted the medium and then made their request (health, wealth, good luck, etc.). The blessing procedure was the same regarding fu talismans, complete with the third being lit and waved around the head and body. I even saw the Great Sage bless a shirt in place of an adherent who could not come in person. When interacting with the faithful, the medium spoke to them in a high-pitched voice, [5] often making people laugh with his responses. I was later informed that the language used was Taiwanese, which explains why I couldn’t understand what was being said. I too took part in the ritual and noted that the medium’s eyes were rolled back into his head. Apart from the poses at the beginning, the voice and eyes serve to mark the possessed state.

The medium has held his position at the temple for 20 years. But it should be noted that he has a normal job during the week and volunteers his time at the temple. His path to mediumship began as a young man when he started displaying certain behavior signifying he had been chosen by the Great Sage to be his earthly representative. While many mediums go through a period of training under a “Red Hat” Daoist (Hongtou Daoshi, 紅頭道士), a master of religious ceremony (Clart, 2008), I was told the methods of mediumship were revealed to him in his dreams by the Great Sage while he slept in the temple for 49 days.

3.2. Celebrating the Great Sage’s Birthday

The Monkey King’s birthday is recognized as the 12th day of the 10th lunar month and is celebrated over the course of three days. This year the birthday will correspond to November 19th. The first day of celebrations is undertaken by core temple members, while the subsequent days are undertaken by sister temples. Below is a video showing a time-lapse of a past celebration. Many people crowd the temple to pay their respects, as well as to laden the offering table with all kinds of delicious fruits and sweets. I can picture the Great Sage rolling around on the ground and laughing in delight!

Video 2 – The celebration of the Great Sage’s birthday.

His offerings are later shared with his five celestial generals in the Rewarding Soldiers ritual (Kao jun, 犒軍). This too is common in other temples.

4. Conclusion

The Buddho-Daoist Wanfu Temple of Tainan, Taiwan worships Sun Wukong under his guise as the Great Sage Equaling Heaven, who is venerated as a powerful exorcist and healer, as well as a sort of patron saint of children. The main focus of worship is a 300-plus-year old stone statue believed to have been brought over from Fujian during the turmoil of the late Ming dynasty. The temple recognizes an entire pantheon of Great Sages, from a trinity (headed by the aforementioned statue) and administrative managers down to an army of lowly soldier monkeys. Furthermore, the Great Sage has at his disposal five cardinal celestial generals and their respective armies to insure his will is done. The position of the Great Sage within the greater Buddhist pantheon is the same as in the novel. He is subordinate to the Bodhisattva Guanyin, who is considered by Wanfu to be almost equal to the Buddha in terms of importance.

The Great Sage-adherent dynamic involves two forms of interaction, impersonal and personal. The former involves the adherent praying to the deity in heaven, sometimes using bamboo cups, fortune sticks, and corresponding oracle booklets to divine the Great Sage’s response to their request. The latter involves personal interaction with the deity via a spirit-medium. The Wanfu medium twice-weekly (Wed. and Sat.) holds a ceremony where he calls down the Great Sage and, after taking possession, the deity personally interacts with those seeking blessings. He employs magic fu talismans to bless both children and adults, the paper slip being burnt and waved around their body. The ritual for children is more involved as incense is first used to draw talismans on their body and then negative qi is released by pushing on the stomach.

I plan to revisit the temple at a later date to conduct more in-depth research into the particulars of the pantheon, as well as the ritual of the spirit-medium. Visiting during the Great Sage’s birthday, the 12th day of the 10th lunar month, would be an ideal time since it’s no doubt a time of much fanfare.

Update: 07/21/2020

Wanfu Temple’s “black command flag” (Hokkien: or leng ki; Mandarin: hei leng qi, 黑令旗) (fig. 20) is located just outside the rightmost front entrance. Elliott (1955/1990) writes command flags advertise the presence of a spirit-medium, while also serving as a warning to ghosts and demons (p. 51). Chan (2014) explains such flags are imbued with the power of the Dark Emperor of the North, considered the greatest exorcist god in Daoism, and act as a covenant between the deity and the tangki spirit-medium who leads his heavenly armies against evil (p. 34).

Fig. 20 – The Wanfu Temple black command flag (larger version). Fig. 21 – The flag legend (larger version).

Each flag is covered with arcane symbols that are usually only intelligible to the initiated. With some help, [6] I have made a near complete translation of the Wanfu black command flag (fig. 21):

  1. 雨漸耳 (yu jian er) – “Rain soaks the ears”, likely referring to a commandment from heaven.
  2. 六? (Liu ?) – The mystery character likely refers to the Six Ding (六丁), protector spirits of Daoism. They are often grouped with the Six Jia (Mugitani, 2008). This is likely connected to no. 11 below.
  3. 六甲 (Liu Jia) – Refers to the Six Jia. This is likely connected to no. 12.
  4. 北極 (Bei ji) – The “Northern Ultimate”, referring to the Dark Emperor of the North. Here, the character for “north” is split in half and “ultimate” is inserted in the middle.
  5. ?富? – Two unknown characters sandwich that for “wealth” (fu).
  6. Sun – A symbol for 陽 (yang) energy.
  7. Moon – A symbol for 陰 (yin) energy.
  8. Big Dipper – A seven-star pattern associated with Daoist ritualistic dances and purification ceremonies. See section one of my article here for more info.
  9. 風調雨順 (feng tiao yu shun) – A common Chinese idiom meaning “the wind and rain are seasonal” (i.e. the weather is good).
  10. 國泰民安 (guo tai min an) – Another common idiom. It means “the country is prosperous, and the people are secure”.
  11. 敺邪 (qu xie) – “Expel evil/disease”. This is likely connected to no. 2 above. Together it would read the “Six Ding expel evil/disease”.
  12. 押煞 (ya sha) – “Stop malicious spirits”. This is likely connected to no. 3. Together it would read the “Six Jia stop malicious spirits”.
  13. This angular symbol is the 符胆 (fu dan), the talismanic flag’s locus of power (Chan, 2014, p. 35).


1) One report from the 17th-century describes the Great Sage appearing in the clouds over the Fujian coast and beating back invading Japanese pirates during the preceding century.

2) This appears to be a common practice. In his study of Singaporean spirit-mediums, Elliott (1955/1990) writes: “Before their performances many dang-ki have been seen to chew some sort of root or sip from a cup, but it has been impossible to ascertain whether these contain stimulating substances” (p. 64).

3) The Great Sage after all is a trained doctor. His medical skills are described in chapters 68 and 69.

4. Such youths are known as “dedicated children” (khoe-kia) in Singapore (Elliott, 1955/1990, p. 83).

5) Elliott (1955/1990) references the tangki‘s “shrill, artificial voice” and notes it’s “supposed to be ‘shen [神, god] language'” (p. 64).

6) I am indebted to Kelly Black Lin for helping me decipher some of the cryptic characters.


Chan, M. (2014). Tangki War Magic: The Virtuality of Spirit Warfare and the Actuality of Peace. Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice, 58(1), 25-46. Retrieved from

Clart, P. (2008). Tang-ki (or jitong) In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of Taoism: Volume 2 (pp. 964-966). London [u.a.: Routledge].

Davis, E. L. (2001). Society and the Supernatural in Song China. Honolulu (Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.

Elliott, A. J. (1990). Chinese Spirit-Medium Cults in Singapore. London: The Athlone Press. (Original work published 1955)

Mugitani, K. (2008). Liujia and Liuding. In F. Pregadio (Ed.), The encyclopedia of Taoism: Vol 1-2 (pp. 695-697). Longdon: Routledge.

The Origins and Evolution of Sha Wujing

Did you know Sha Wujing can be traced to an obscure Chinese desert spirit who was venerated as a minor Buddhist protector deity in Japan? This god is first mentioned in a 7th-century account of the historical Xuanzang, a.k.a. Tripitaka, titled Da Tang Daciensi Sanzang Fashi Zhuan (大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳, A Biography of the Tripitaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty). According to the text, Xuanzang spilled his surplus of water while in the deserts near Dunhuang, and after several days without drink, he had a fevered dream in which a tall, halberd-wielding spirit chastised him for sleeping instead of continuing his journey to retrieve scriptures from India. The monk immediately awoke and mounted his horse, which took him to an oasis with green grass and fresh water (Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 18-19).

I. Close ties with Japan

The Tang Sanzang ji (唐三藏記, Record of the Tang Monk Tripitaka), a book of seemingly unknown date appearing in an 11th-century Japanese collection of tales known as Jōbodai shū (成菩堤集), states Xuanzang was magically provided food and drink by a deva while in the “Flowing Sands” (Liusha, 流沙) desert, a term commonly used for the harsh environment of China’s northwestern region. [1] The compiler of the Jōbodai shū explains: “This is the reason for the name Spirit of the Deep Sands (Shensha shen, 深沙神)” (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 19). After returning from a pilgrimage to China (838-839), the Japanese Buddhist monk Jōgyō (常曉, d. 865) wrote a report which describes Tripitaka’s fabled exchange with the deity, as well as equates Shensha shen with King Vaiśravaṇa, one of the Four Heavenly Kings of Buddhism. [2] Therefore, the Tang Sanzang ji most likely hails from the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Jōbodai shū also states the god manifested itself before the famous Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian (法顯, 337-c. 422) during his pilgrimage to India. Shensha shen describes himself thus:

I am manifested in an aspect of fury. My head is like a crimson bowl. My two hands are like the nets of heaven and earth. From my neck hang the heads of seven demons. About my limbs are eight serpents, and two demon heads seem to engulf my (nether-) limbs…(Dudbridge, 1970, p. 20).

Monk Jōgyō’s aforementioned 9th-century report on Shensha shen appears to have initiated veneration of the spirit as a Buddhist guardian (no doubt thanks to his association with King Vaiśravaṇa). This deity was at some point given the title Jinja Taishō (深沙大將, “General of the Deep Sands”) and appeared in late Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) period art (Wong, 2002, pp. 61 and 63). One 12th-century ink on paper painting follows the iconography from the Jōbodai shū and depicts his legs with demonic elephant knees and bird-like talons (fig. 1). This same depiction most likely served as the basis for an exquisite wooden statue from the Kamakura period (fig. 2). The god never lost his association with Xuanzang, for one well-known 14th-century painting of the monk depicts him wearing Jinja Taisho’s necklace of skulls (fig. 3 and 4). Another painting of the same period depicts the pair standing on either side of a celestial crowd paying reverence to the Buddha. [3] It appears to be based on an earlier Chinese Song Dynasty painting (Fig. 5, 6, and 7). Regarding the Japanese image, Wong (2002) notes:

Even though Xuanzang, of human origin, and Shensha shen, a demonic figure, were of low status in the Buddhist hierarchy, they are represented because of their role in the transmission of the Heart Sutra, and become elevated in rank by being shown with the deities and bodhisattvas that protect the sacred text (p. 63).

Sha Wujing Origins - 1

Fig. 1 – 12th-century Japanese ink on paper painting (larger version); Fig. 2 – 13th to 14th-century Japanese Kamakura wooden statue (larger version); Fig. 3 – Famous 14th-century Kamakura painting of Xuanzang (larger version); Fig. 4 – Detail of the skull necklace (larger version); Fig. 5 – Chinese Song Dynasty painting of the Buddha’s heavenly retinue, including Shensha shen (bottom center left) and Xuanzang (bottom center right) (larger version); Fig 6 – Detail of Shensha shen (larger version); Fig. 7 – Detail of Xuanzang (larger version).

II. Mention in Chinese literature

The concept of Shensha shen was well enough established in China by the 13th-century to be included in the eighth chapter of The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures, the earliest version of Journey to the West. But instead of being a benevolent deity, he is portrayed as a bloodthirsty monster who had several times eaten Xuanzang’s past reincarnations. The demon tells him, “I am the one who devoured you twice before, monk. Slung from my neck are all your dry bones!” (Wivell, 1994, p. 1190). The monster only helps the monk and his retinue cross the “Deep Sands” via a magical golden bridge once he is threatened with heavily retribution. Memorial poems therefore note that Tripitaka releases the spirit from a five hundred-year-long curse, and Pilgrim (Sun Wukong) promises to speak highly of him when they finally meet the Buddha.

Sha Wujing first appears in the 22nd chapter of the final 1592 edition as an ogre-like beast living in the “Flowing Sands River” (Liusha he, 流沙河), a callback to the similarly named desert from earlier sources .

A head full of tousled and flame-like hair;
A pair of bright, round eyes which shone like lamps;
An indigo face, neither black nor green;
An old dragon’s voice like thunderclap or drum.
He wore a cape of light yellow goose down.
Two strands of white reeds tied around his waist [fig. 8].
Beneath his chin nine skulls were strung and hung;
His hands held an awesome priestly staff (Wu & Yu, 2012, p. 422).

Like The Story, Sha Wujing is persuaded to help the group cross the river, but this time it is after Xuanzang takes him as his third and final disciple (he had previously been pacified and converted by the Bodhisattva Guanyin). The water spirit takes off his skull necklace and, with the aid of a heaven-sent magic gourd, transforms the accoutrements into a boat on which Tripitaka rides to the other side.


Fig. 8 – A modern depiction of Sha Wujing by Tianwaitang on deviantart (larger version).

III. Origin of Shensha Shen and Sha Wujing’s skull necklace

The skull necklace (Sanskrit: muṇḍamālā) can be tied to Esoteric Buddhism. For instance, the Sadhanamala (“Garland of Methods”), a compilation of esoteric texts from the 5th to 11th-centuries, describes the wrathful protector deity Hevajra (fig. 9) wearing such a necklace:

He wields the vajra in the right hand and from his left shoulder hangs the Khatvanga [staff] with a flowing banner, like a sacred thread. He carries in his left hand the kapala [skull cap] full of blood. His necklace is beautified by a chain of half-a-hundred severed heads [Fig. 10]. His face is slightly distorted with bare fangs and blood-shot eyes. His brown hair rises upwards and forms into a crown which bears the effigy of Aksobhya [Buddha]. He wears a kundala [ear decoration] and is decked in ornaments of bones. His head is beautified by five skulls (Donaldson, 2001, p. 221).

This attire is traceable to that worn by adherents of Heruka, another wrathful deity, as prescribed in the Indian Buddhist Hevajra Tantra (Ch: 大悲空智金剛大教王儀軌經, Dabei kongzhi jingang dajiao wang yigui jing, 8th-century): “The yogin must wear the sacred ear-rings, and the circlet on his head; on his wrists the bracelets, and the girdle round his waist, rings around his ankles, bangles round his arms; he wears the bone-necklace and for his dress a tiger-skin…” (Linrothe, 1999, p. 250). Compare this description with, for example, the Song Dynasty painting of Shensha shen (fig. 6). Many of the elements are present.

Statue with necklace detail

Fig. 8 – The Buddhist Deity Hevajra, late 11th to early 12th-century, copper alloy (larger version). Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Fig. 9 – Detail of the necklace (larger version).

IV. Conclusion

Sha Wujing is traceable to an obscure Chinese desert spirit first mentioned in an embellished 7th-century account of the historical Xuanzang’s travels. This and later accounts portray him as a benevolent guardian watching over the monk and providing Tripitaka with subsistence on his journey through the harsh “Flowing Sands” desert of northwestern China. The Japanese Monk Jōgyō wrote a 9th-century report in which he mentioned the deity and associated him with King Vaiśravaṇa. This appears to have led to his veneration in Japan, for sources from the 11th-century onward not only provide him with the titles Shensha shen (“Spirit of the Deep Sands”) and Jinja Taisho (“General of the Deep Sands”), but also lay out a prescribed iconography for him. He is generally portrayed in late 12th to 14th-century Japanese art as a fierce warrior with flame-like hair, a necklace of skulls, serpent arm adornments, demonic knees, and (sometimes) bird-like talons.

This spirit appears in The Story of How Tripitaka of the Great Tang Procures the Scriptures (13th-century), the earliest version of Journey to the West, but is instead portrayed as a bloodthirsty desert demon who revels in having eaten Xuanzang’s last two incarnations. A necklace of dry bones serves as proof of his murderous hobby. He only decides to help the monk pass the Deep Sands when threatened with heavenly retribution. This episode served as the basis for Sha Wujing’s origin in the final 1592 version of the novel. He is similarly portrayed as a flesh-craving, skull necklace-wearing demon. Even his home, the aquatic realm of the “Deep Sands River”, is based on the former’s desert home. But after helping Tripitaka cross the river, Sha Wujing differentiates himself from his literary precursor by serving as the monk’s disciple and stalwart protector.

The skull necklace can be traced to wrathful Esoteric Buddhist deities and their accoutrements. For example, an 11th-century esoteric text describes the deity Hevajra wearing a “necklace…beautified by a chain of half-a-hundred severed heads”. This is ultimately based on one of the five kinds of ritual adornments worn by Indian Buddhist yogin adherents of the wrathful deity Heruka during the 8th-century.


1) The original source says “Moving sands” (Dudbridge, 1970, p. 19 n. 3), but I have changed the wording to conform with that commonly used in various English translations of the tale.

2) Dudbridge, 1970, pp. 19-20. It’s interesting to note that King Vaiśravaṇa influenced another character from Journey to the West, Heavenly King Li Jing. Li Jing (李靖, 571-649) was a historical Tang dynasty general who won many battles in China and Central Asia. Shahar (2013) notes Li was deified after his death, and that the cult centered around him existed into the Song Dynasty. Most importantly, “The general [was] celebrated in a large body of oral and written fiction, which gradually associated him with the Indian god [Vaiśravana].” He continues, “Storytellers and playwrights [eventually] merged the Tang general with the martial Heavenly King” (28). This merging may have happened as early as the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) (Shahar & Kieschnick, 2013, p. 224 n. 18).

3) I unfortunately couldn’t find a high res version of this painting. All those I could find were either too blurry or to small for focusing on specific areas for details. The above linked webpage with the Song Dynasty variant includes a low res version of the Japanese painting.


Dudbridge, G. (1970). The Hsi-yu chi: A study of antecedents to the sixteenth-century Chinese novel. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Linrothe, R. N. (1999). Ruthless compassion: wrathful deities in early Indo-Tibetan esoteric Buddhist art. Boston, Mass: Shambhala.

Shahar, M., & Kieschnick, J. (2013). India in the Chinese Imagination: Myth, Religion, and Thought. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Shahar, M. (2013). Indian mythology and the Chinese imagination: Nezha, Nalakubara, and Krshna. In Meir Shahar and John Kieschnick. India in the Chinese imagination: Myth, religion, and thought (pp 21-45). University of Pennsylvania Press.

Wivell, C.S. (1994). The story of how the monk Tripitaka of the great country of T’ang brought back the Sūtras. In Mair, Victor H. The Columbia anthology of traditional Chinese literature (pp 1181-1207). New York: Columbia University Press.

Wong, D. C. (2002). The making of a saint: Images of Xuanzang in East Asia. Early Medieval China 8, pp. 43-95.

Wu, C., & Yu, A. C. (2012). The journey to the West: Volume 1. Chicago, Illinois : University of Chicago Press.

Zhu Bajie: Patron Deity of Prostitutes

Last updated: 01/05/2019

The Xiahai City God Temple (霞海城隍廟, Xiahai chenghuang miao) in the Dadaocheng district of (old) Taipei, Taiwan contains a Zhu Bajie (豬八戒) shrine statue (fig. 1) to which prostitutes and other members of the hospitality industry pay reverence. Taiwan Today writes:

The novel depicts the travels to India by the monk Xuanzang in search of Buddhist sutras. He is accompanied by three main disciples, of which Pigsy, who was previously Marshal Tian Peng, Grand Admiral of the Heavenly River, took responsibility for social events. With his easygoing nature, he blessed the group with jubilance. This also gained him a reputation of living a good life with abundant food and numerous flirtations with women. As Chen Wen-wen, manager of the Xiahai temple noted, this makes Zhu Ba Jie “the only deity that the hospitality industry needs to worship.”

In addition to its role as an ancient trading area beside the Danshui River, the Dadaocheng District became famous for the richness of its theaters, restaurants, hotels and gaming dens. People working in the clubs, especially those in the sex industry, would come to worship Pigsy after they finished work when the temple opened in the morning. “Every morning around 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., many ladies and bigwigs driving black Benz cars would come to pray to the deity Pigsy. They tended to dress beautifully and look wealthy,” Chen noted, explaining that these people hoped their customers would be as easygoing as Pigsy and would continue to visit their businesses.


Fig. 1 – Pigsy’s statue from the Xiahai City God temple (credit: Mark Hodson).

Although the area was no longer as affluent as before, and the piano bar trade long ago moved elsewhere, Chen recalled a woman visiting her temple just a few days earlier. “She said she was in charge of arranging girls for customers and admitted she had come here to pray for better business.” Chen asked to whom she was praying, to which the middle-aged woman replied “You have the Marshal Tian Peng here.” Chen asked if she meant Zhu Ba Jie, and the woman said, yes, that he had been educated and cultivated by his mentor, the monk Xuanzang, and had then became the spiritual figure of the hospitality business (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China (Taiwan), 2006). [1]

I visited the Xiahai City God temple but unfortunately did not see the statue since (as I was told) it was tucked behind those of more prominent deities. The temple has a book with listings for each deity housed therein. The listing for Pigsy doesn’t provide any new information other than a title, Zhu Ge Shen (猪哥神, “Brother God Zhu”) (fig. 6 and 7). [2] It just mentions his previous incarnation as Marshal Tianpeng, his adventures in JTTW, and the demographics of his cult.

Fig. 5 and 6 – Pigsy’s listing as Marshal Tianpeng (天蓬元帥) from the Xiahai City God temple book. Full size versions here and here.

Zhu Bajie’s worship by working girls is not isolated to this temple, however. Keith Stevens (2000) writes:

Although he is usually regarded China-wide as the epitome of gluttony, in Taiwan he is also revered by prostitutes who call on his divine title Shoushou Ye 授受爺, offering him incense and chants morning and evening whilst calling on him to bring them rich guests, foolish and witless, to be fleeced. An image, one of a number on loan from devotees, depicts him sitting holding a virtually nude woman in his arms alone on one of the side altars in the City God Temple in Chia I [Southwestern Taiwan] (p. 195).

The cited image is similar to this piece (fig. 2).


Fig. 2 – A Zhu Bajie / Marshal Tianpeng altar statue similar to those prayed to by prostitutes (larger version).

I find his divine title of Shoushou Ye (授受爺, “Lord Give and Accept”) to be quite humorous. Not only does it represent the exchange of money for flesh between a lady of pleasure and her customer, but it may also be a cheeky allusion to an ancient more from the time of Mencius (4th-cent. BCE):

It is prescribed by the rites that, in giving and receiving [an object], man and woman should not touch each other [男女授受不親, nannu shoushou buqin] (McMahon, 1995, p. 166).

Pigsy thumbs his nose at such a rule!

I mentioned in a previous article that Zhu Bajie’s literary incarnation Marshal Tianpeng is a historical deity that was worshiped as a powerful exorcist starting around the 6th-century. During the early Song Dynasty (960-1279), the celestial general joined with other demonifugic deities to form the quaternity of the Sisheng (四聖, “Four Saints”). His position as a protector led to his worship by the military from this time onward. Marshal Tianpeng’s long history in the Daoist pantheon may then explain why Pigsy was readily adopted as a deity in his own right. He no doubt has the novel to thank for this honor.

Update: 03/21/2018

Across the Taiwan Strait lies the southern Chinese province of Fujian. The Putian plains of the central coast hosts a number of temples dedicated to Zhu Bajie, also known there as Puji Shenghou (普濟聖侯, “Marquis Sage of Universal Salvation”). Dean and Zheng (2009) note an interesting geographical correlation:

Using GIS mapping, one can unearth many suggestive correlations in distributions of different cultural features across the plain. For example, certain gods such as Qitian dasheng … and Puji shenghou …, the Monkey and the Pig of the classic Xiyouji 西游記 (Journey to the West), appear more often in poorer villages in the northern plain [fig. 3], often in higher elevations than in the low-lying, densely irrigated, wealthier villages of the southern plains. This suggests that the unruly natures of these gods appealed to poorer communities rather than to villages with established scholar-literati lineages (pp. 38-39)


Fig. 3 – Distribution of Zhu Bajie temples in the Putian plains of Fujian Province, China (larger version). Adapted from Dean and Zheng, 2009, p. 193.

Considering the close historical connection between Fujian and Taiwan, [3] it’s possible the demographics of Pigsy’s cult on the mainland may have some bearing on the history of his worship on the island.

Updated: 01/05/2019

A new paper on the subject has been published by Prof. Ben Brose of the University of Michigan. He was kind enough to give me permission to archive it here.


1) I changed the romanization of particular Chinese terms to pinyin.

2) To me, this title speaks of familiarity and friendship. Pigsy is the sort of god you want to go out drinking and chasing after girls with.

3) Taiwan was made a prefecture of Fujian province in 1684 by the foreign rulers of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). It later achieved province status in 1887.


Dean, K., & Zheng, Z. (2009). Ritual alliances of the Putian plain. Volume One: Historical introduction to the return of the gods. Leiden: Brill.

McMahon, K. (1995). Misers, shrews, and polygamists: Sexuality and male-female relations in eighteenth-century Chinese fiction. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China (Taiwan). (2006, Dec. 22). Temple visitors pray to Pigsy. Taiwan Today. Retrieved from,23,45,18&post=24059

Stevens, K. (2000). Patron Deity of Prostitutes: Zhu Bajie / 豬八戒. Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 40, 195-196. Retrieved March 20, 2018, from